Made for HC8002: Understanding Chinese Cinemas, a course which looks at films created by Chinese communities around the world, and the cultural contexts in which they are made.

The video essay looks at Suzhou River (2000), a film by Sixth-generation director Lou Ye. This post-90s era of Chinese filmmaking is marked by its urban environment, interest in the individual, and anti-romantic view of life.


Suzhou River is a film by the Sixth Generation director Lou Ye, set in modern Shanghai. Told from the first-person perspective of a videographer, the story unfolds as his girlfriend, Meimei, is approached by an unknown man named Mardar claiming that she is his long-lost lover. The videographer displays some scepticism at this, and begins to tell a story about the origins of Mardar and his lost lover, Moudan. As the film progresses, the distinction between his story and reality begins to blur.

In this video essay, we will explore this interplay between fiction and reality, focusing on the parallels between the videographer and Meimei, and their counterparts, Mardar and Moudan. We will also analyse the most striking feature of this film, the philosophical undercurrent that drives it.

At its heart, Suzhou River, as a film, is an expression of a certain dispassionate affection towards change.

The titular river itself is a symbol of history, with the boathouses parked along its embankment and the accumulation of filth and human pollution serving as physical testaments to the lives lived here. But more specifically, it’s a symbol of history changing. This opening sequence was shot during the Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Project launched in 1998[1], a project to clean up the river, as its serious levels of pollution were becoming more and more of a concern to the developing city of Shanghai. As such, these shots capture a river containing, as the narrator says, “a century’s worth of myths, stories, memories”, on the verge of change, in the face of the modernisation of Shanghai. It also presents a very different side of Shanghai, as compared to the architectural wonders of the Bund and skyscrapers of the Pudong district that dominated popular cinematic representations of the city. Here, these famed landmarks are relegated to the background, with only their silhouettes visible through the haze. We see a murky, grimy, unrefurbished, side of Shanghai, with symbols of modernity, like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, looming in the distance. What is notable is that these scenes are presented without suggestion: there is no indication of the narrator’s feelings towards either the state of the river, or stark contrast between the two sides of Shanghai, or the impending change brought on by encroaching forces of modernisation. Scenes of the river are shakily panned over, and the shots are haphazardly stitched together. The deliberate absence, perhaps even dismissal, of editorial direction, serves to present scenes as they are[2] — here, the narrator says, “my camera does not lie”. The choice of shots and editing creates a sequence which simply takes in the scenery, conveying a passive acceptance of the grimy environment, and the changing times. Beneath this, a muted undertone of affection for this place is also present — the videographer "frequently travels down the river with [his] camera", so despite the detachment that runs through his narration, his choice of pastime tells of a subtle fondness for watching life along the river, and the changes that come with it.

It is a similar attitude of disengaged affection with which the film looks at foreign influence. Elements of foreign culture pervade the film, from the Hollywood-style poster in Meimei’s home, to Mardar’s penchant for pirated DVDs. Mardar’s usual drink is even named “Hollywood”, and it is this same drink that Mardar and Moudan share as they fall in love. The other alcohol that connects the two is also a foreign import: the Buffalo Grass vodka from eastern Europe. This is the reason for the lovers’ reunion, and also the implied cause of their death. Yet, the film is anything but an indictment of the westernisation of Chinese culture. In contrast to the Fifth Generation filmmakers, who, fresh from the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, were concerned with questions of national Chinese identity[3], Suzhou River does not shy away from presenting the large degree to which western culture has entered into everyday Chinese city life, neither does it glorify this influence. Again, it only passively observes[4].

The mermaid is also a foreign import[5], a figure borrowed from western mythology. We see two representations of the mermaid in the film: Meimei, the sensual, siren-like mermaid who lures men into the “Happy Tavern” for the consumption of vices; and Moudan, her counterpart, more akin to the Little Mermaid of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, who falls in love with a prince. The interplay between these two characters is driven by Meimei’s desire to transform into Moudan, to become the protagonist of a love story. She is enraptured by the story of Moudan and Mardar, and persistently asks the videographer “If I left one day, would you look for me like Mardar?” She is essentially asking him if he is willing to play the part of Mardar, and partake in the construction of a love story according to the mould of the Mardar and Moudan fairytale. The videographer is hesitant in agreeing (and Meimei can sense it), because he does not share her desire to become a character in a story.

Here, we come to the other main theme of the film: the intimate interplay between fiction and reality. The story of Mardar and Moudan as told to us began as a creation of the videographer’s, as a protest against the replicability and pervasiveness of such stories. His camera’s gaze wanders across the people on the street, and he picks out two characters at random. His narration of the story makes it clear that he is making up the details as he goes. However, this clear boundary between the fiction of the videographer’s creation, and the reality the videographer inhabits, begins to blur at the point of his invitation to the fictional character. Mardar then transforms from being a fictional character of the videographer’s creation into a character inhabiting the same space of reality as the videographer, capable of direct interaction with him. He has traversed the fiction-reality boundary, making the story become his reality by taking ownership of “continuing his own story”. The ending, then, stands in opposition to this — the videographer makes the choice not to continue his own story. He maintains a distance, unwilling to pursue what he views as an idealised fiction. This is the same distance that has been enforced by situating his character behind the lens: the on-screen characters and the character of the videographer do not inhabit the same cinematic space — there is always an untraversable separation, felt most keenly during the most intimate scenes. The videographer’s distance illustrates one method of approaching the fiction-reality boundary: recognising stories as fiction, and maintaining a level of detachment, even as he partakes in their unfolding.

Meimei, then, embodies the other approach: she slowly transforms herself into the character in the story she is entranced by — Moudan. We see her applying the tattoo that Moudan had, according to Mardar’s description of her, even as she recognises that it’s not a unique identifier. She begins to return Mardar’s affections, sleeping with him, taking up Moudan’s role of being his lover. Her transformation is completed when she runs away, leaving a note for the videographer to find her — she has fully assumed the character archetype of the elusive Moudan, the irreplaceable lover who is to be tirelessly chased after[6]. Meimei’s method of approaching the fiction-reality boundary is the leap-of-faith into the realm of stories — for her, stories are reality, there is no separation, detachment, distance, as there is for the videographer; and as we have seen from Mardar, taking control of continuing one’s own story can transform it into reality. The ambiguity of the Mardar-Moudan storyline, and the surreal manner in which it interweaves with the Meimei-videographer reality, is a comment on the inseparability between stories and reality — the lived experience is inescapably dictated by fictional frameworks.

Perhaps there is an implication that the videographer makes a different choice from Meimei because he is privy to knowledge that Meimei is not — he has seen every possible story run its course from his observations of life along the river, he has shot too many special events and celebrations that unfold in much the same manner, he is cognizant of the easily replicable nature of seemingly fantastical stories, because he recognises the mould from which they are created[7]. But ultimately, he is not dismissive of the power of believing in stories — after all, he believed in Meimei.

The film embraces foreign influence, the changes imminent to the city of Shanghai, and life along Suzhou River, with the same blend of dispassionate affection and passive acceptance as the videographer embraces the changing of his stories, of his lived experience. Even though the fondness he feels for his story with Meimei is palpably felt by him, even as he expresses regret for the loss of a treasured story, he accepts the ephemeral nature of things, and looks forward to the next story.

Additional footage used: Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Project[8], Archive Footage (1999)[9], Archive Footage (1980)[10], Archive Footage (1947)[11]


  1. Berra, J. (2017, September 18). Fleeting Romance in the Throes of Development: Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000) [DCCFF 2017]. Retrieved from
  2. Qi Wang. (2014). Surface and Edge: The Cinema of Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye. In Memory, Subjectivity and Independent Chinese Cinema (pp. 93-123). Edinburgh University Press.
  3. Clark, P. (1989). Reinventing China: The Fifth-Generation Filmmakers. Modern Chinese Literature, 5(1), 121-136.
  4. Ortells, X. (2010). Symptomatic Metafiction in Lou Ye’s Suzhou River. Asian Cinema, 21(2), 285-300.
  5. French, P. (2000, November 19). Film of the week: Suzhou River. The Observer, Retrieved from
  6. Metzger, S. (2006). The Little (Chinese) Mermaid: Importing “Western” Femininity in Lou Ye’s Suzhou he (Suzhou River). How East Asian Films Are Reshaping National Identities: Essays on the Cinemas of China, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, 135-54.
  7. Searls. D. (2001). Suzhou River. Film Quarterly, 55(2), 55-60.
  8. Asian Development Bank. (2017, April 11). Built to Last: Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Project, PRC. Retrieved from
  9. Associated Press. (1999, April 9). CHINA: SHANGHAI: POLLUTION ISSUES [Video file].
  10. Li, S. Y., & Sun S. (1980). Suzhou [Video file]. Retrieved from
  11. Castle Films. (1947). The World Parade: Shanghai [Video file].